When the clothes fly off, this intimacy coordinator steps in
It takes a lot of people to make a film. You have the director for the overall vision, the gaffer on the lights, the set designers to add texture to the world of the film and the costumers to imagine the looks of the actors.
And when those suits come loose and things start to get a little steamy? This is where Jessica Steinrock comes in.
Ms. Steinrock is an Intimacy Coordinator – or Director of Intimacy, when working in theater and live performance – who facilitates the production of scenes involving nudity, simulated sex or hyperexposure, whether she defines as “something someone might not otherwise experience in public, even if it’s not legally nudity. Much like a stunt coordinator or fight director, she makes sure the actors are safe throughout the process and that the scene seems believable.
The role has grown in importance over the past five years. As the entertainment industry reeled from the litany of abuse brought to light by the #MeToo movement, many productions were eager to publicly demonstrate their commitment to safety. Hiring an intimacy coordinator was one way to do this.
“A lot of places were really excited about the possibility of this work and getting a head start — showing that their company cared about their actors, cared about consent,” Ms. Steinrock said in a Zoom interview from her home in Chicago.
Ms Steinrock – who has worked on projects such as the critically acclaimed Showtime survival drama “Yellowjackets,” Netflix’s teen comedy-drama “Never Have I Ever” and Hulu miniseries “Little Fires Everywhere” — have been involved in intimacy coordination since its debut. The industry took off in large part due to the high-profile work of intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis on the HBO show “The Deuce” in 2018. Around that time, Ms. Steinrock, whose background is in the comedy of improvisation, was working on a master’s degree in theater at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, focused on navigating questions of consent in this space.
“In the improv world, I got picked up or kissed or grabbed a lot, or jokes were made about me that I didn’t consent to,” she recalled in a TikTok video. “And I was really curious if there were ways to navigate better.”
The question was particularly thorny in improvisation, which is based on a philosophy of accepting and leveraging whatever your stage partner gives you.
“You’ve been put in these awkward or even harmful positions because the whole culture is ‘yes, and…’,” said Valleri Robinson, head of the university’s theater department, who advised Ms Steinrock on her master’s and his doctorate. “It really started to come to the fore for her that it was a problematic way to create art.”
Mrs. Steinrock and Mrs. Rodis met through Mrs. Steinrock’s boyfriend, now a husband, who is a fight manager. Mrs. Rodis recognized a kindred spirit, with all the qualities of a great intimacy coordinator, in Mrs. Steinrock. She mentored Ms. Steinrock at her first gig: a 40-person orgy on the TNT show “Claws.” “She was thrown into the lion’s den, and she absolutely broke it,” Ms Rodis recalled.
Ms. Steinrock quickly became a leader in this burgeoning field, and she now devotes much of her time to educating people about it. In April 2022, she launched her TikTok account, which now has over 700,000 followers. In her videos, she critiques “spicy” scenes on TV shows (her current favorites include “Bridgerton,” “Sex Education,” and “House of the Dragon”); breaks down how these scenes are filmed; and answers frequently asked questions about his work, such as “What do you do if an actor gets an erection?” or “If two actors are in an off-screen relationship, do they still have to follow the same protocols?” She doesn’t just demystify her work, but also engages people in broader conversations about intimacy and consent.
The role of Intimacy Coordinator can be a delicate balancing act between choreography and caring, and Ms. Steinrock brings an academic background in feminist and performance theory to the job, coupled with innate relationship skills.
“She’s very patient,” said Karyn Kusama, director and executive producer of the Showtime drama “Yellowjackets,” who worked with Ms. Steinrock on the show’s pilot. “She listens. She expects the actor to take the lead in terms of … what will make them feel the most cared for.
The “Yellow Vests” pilot includes several intimate scenes, including one where two high school students, played by Sophie Nélisse and Jack Depew, have sex in a car, and another where a housewife, played by Melanie Lynskey, masturbates . Having Ms. Steinrock on set for these scenes was vital, Ms. Kusama said.
As a director, Ms. Kusama said she always felt a deep empathy for the actors’ vulnerability in these scenes and made a point of checking it out. But even if she asks a question, it can be difficult for an uncomfortable actor to answer honestly knowing how much is at stake. An intimacy coordinator, as a neutral party, is more likely to get an honest answer.
“Socieally, it’s really hard to talk about sex,” Ms Steinrock said. Her role is to “create more lines of communication,” she explained, so the cast feels safe to discuss any issues, big or small, that may arise.
Having an intimacy coordinator not only creates a safer environment, Ms. Kusama said: It also makes art better and sexier.
“It requires that you take responsibility for your story with the actors, that you actually say, yes, we portray sex and here’s what it has to mean – that is, it has to means something,” she says. “And conversely, I can say to an intimacy coordinator, ‘You know, I feel like I’m watching two people peck each other on the cheek, and there’s no no heat here.’”
This is where the choreography of Ms. Steinrock’s work comes in: she can offer ways to use breathing or adjust positions to make a scene more evocative.
In just five years, intimacy coordinators have become an essential part of the entertainment industry. HBO has required them on all their productions since 2019 (Ms. Rodis oversees their program). At this point, Ms. Kusama said, it’s hard for her to imagine signing a project with intimate scenes without a scene.
The discipline’s explosive growth has forced coordinators to create real-time standards, like building the rails of a roller coaster as it shoots through the air. “We need to define that role first and agree on what it is,” Ms Steinrock said. “This is step 1 in building a new profession. And then we have to define what the qualification for this role looks like.
In 2020, Ms. Steinrock, Ms. Rodis and another Intimacy Director, Marie Percy, trained Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, with Ms. Steinrock at the helm. She had never been a general manager before, but she learned on the job, quickly making IDC the leading training and accreditation organization in the field. Its four-tier curriculum includes a mix of virtual and in-person classes. It is the only organization to offer certification for the coordination and direction of intimacy, and it also organizes workshops for other artistic professionals, such as actors or directors, who wish to incorporate these practices into their work. .
“Jessica created the accountability structures so we could say, ‘This is what our certification means. Here is all the education behind it. Here are the fair practices that we have, and here is the responsibility that we have to these artists,” Ms. Rodis said.
Ms. Steinrock sees promoting these standards as a key part of IDC’s mission. She was part of a task force organized by the Screen Actors Guild to establish new safety standards for intimacy, which were released in 2020; in 2022, the union launched a registry of approved privacy coordinators and announced it would create a pathway to union membership for these professionals.
“Intimacy coordinators are no panacea for an industry that has historically abused its actors — and, frankly, has historically abused most people who work in it,” Ms. Steinrock said. But integrating them into productions is a clear step that institutions can take, as part of a broader commitment to safety and fairness.
For Ms. Steinrock, this commitment also includes work to diversify the coordination of intimacy. While it’s a rare female-led discipline in a male-dominated industry, it’s still predominantly white and straight — one of the pitfalls of a young profession that has relied heavily on mouth by ear to develop.
Ultimately, the hope is that intimacy coordination will become the norm in the entertainment industry and “help us see ourselves differently and see the role of sex in our lives differently, as something something richer and more full of possibilities,” Ms. Kusama said.
Ms Robinson was delighted to see her former student bring these issues out into the open. “It enhances our vocabularies and gives us pathways beyond industry to address these topics that people find so difficult,” she said. And while much of this awareness has happened via TikTok, Ms Robinson also noted that Ms Steinrock’s thesis has been downloaded more than 700 times – another sign of the interest in this area.
Inviting people to re-examine how sex works in the media they consume, Ms. Steinrock said, could improve their approach to sex in general.
“The media is so many people’s first experience with intimacy,” she said. “And when we care about how things are done, that sparks conversations about how things work in other spaces, and I think that can have a huge impact on what people expect in their everyday life.”
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